Whether your team plans out your DevRel strategy a year in advance or takes it one quarter at a time, there's never a bad time to evaluate where you're at as well as where you're going. My favorite three questions to ask after every project are
- What went well?
- What went poorly?
- What could I be doing better?
This constant state of evaluation leads to continual improvement rather than only taking stock of our successes and failures once or twice a year. Managing a community requires flexibility and the ability to spot value amidst the chaos. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting lost in the weeds, distracted by each new task that comes across our plate rather than focusing on the strategic goals.
In this "Best Of" issue of DevRel Weekly, we'll explore the ins and outs of setting a strategy, from creating a mission statement for your team to asking for a budget to determining success metrics for your new strategy. If you're not a manager, you might be tempted to skip this issue, but I'd encourage you to dig in! The best DevRel teams are ones where everyone understands the goals and is able to contribute valuable insights about how to serve the community going forward. It'll also give you a leg up when you're ready to take the next step in your career.
Wishing you could bookmark this to refer back to months down the road when your strategy sessions are taking place? That's the #1 perk of the DevRel Weekly Patreon! I'll be posting all of these "Best Of" newsletters there for my patrons and updating them periodically as I come across additional articles that are relevant.
In the meantime, let's put on our strategic lens and explore the wild and wonderful world of planning for the future of our communities.
Step 1: Make Time for Strategic Planning
Let's face it: making time to hold retrospectives, analyze data, make plans, and brainstorm strategies is difficult amidst the non-stop schedule that most DevRel teams keep. But as Jennifer Honig reminds us,
I always tell [community managers] to allocate time to strategy - expanded to include key stakeholders, executive face-time or won't happen.
- Set aside time in advance.
- Train other people to provide community support.
- Ask for help.
After all, if we aren't prepared to speak up for ourselves, who will?
Before You Start...
Like most good things, creating a solid DevRel strategy takes some pre-planning. In this case, taking the time to build a solid foundation in the form of a mission statement will save you and the rest of your team months of heartache down the road.
Building a mission statement gives your team something to refer back to when it comes to planning quarter goals, deciding how to prioritize tasks, and ultimately, proving the value of your work to the stakeholders in your company.
Shannon Emery puts it this way:
Don't build to build. Define the purpose and desired outcomes (aka business or organization outcomes) that will keep your program healthy (aka resources such as money).
Otherwise you end up w/white noise that doesn't help you OR your members.
Don't know how to create a mission statement? I've got you covered.
In Follow The North Star: Creating a Community Team Mission Statement, I illustrate the importance of creating DevRel mission and vision statements and how to ensure that your work will be more valuable to both your company and your community members.
Carrie Jones takes a more hands-on approach in How to Create Collaborative Community Mission & Vision Statements, giving you practical, step-by-step points to follow when brainstorming your team mission and vision statements.
Once you have your foundation set, Rich Millington suggests taking each tactical suggestion and running it through a decision framework. By going through this process and rejecting or adjusting ideas until they fit your mission, vision, and goals, you'll find yourself accomplishing tasks that serve a far greater purpose and have a far greater benefit for your community.
Involve Your Team in the Process
We so often approach feedback as something that we're ferrying from our technical community to our product and engineering teams, but what about the feedback we receive regarding our own team's efforts?
I'd encourage those of you who are managers to be intentional about collecting this feedback from your teammates -- not to use for 6-month evaluations or review periods, but to take into account when you're planning for your next quarter. And then use that feedback to plan with your team instead of for your team. In doing so, you'll not only be teaching them valuable lessons in business tactics, strategy, and working with stakeholders, but you'll show them that their feedback is integral to the process.
Jono Bacon encourages us to build our plans out in the open:
Never build a plan in a vacuum. People need to have 'skin in the game', both in terms of their fingerprints on the strategy and accountability in delivery of part of the plan. Gather requirements, produce a rough draft, review as a team, rip apart, and refine together. Collaboration is key.
I fully agree with this sentiment:
So many managers refuse to present a strategy to their team until it's done. The best mgrs allow their team to collaborate on that strategy -- offering up opinions, insights & feelings as part of the process. Not surprisingly, the best strategies come out of these collaborations.
Understand all the Pieces
Having a full understanding of what you're looking at is key when you sit down to plan out a strategy. What are our strengths? Our weaknesses? What needs are we meeting? And what resources do we need in order to meet those needs?
But let's start with the basics:
- education and support
As you're building your strategy, keep these four pillars in mind so that you can make sure you're taking care of your community in all of the appropriate ways.
But before you can decide which of these pillars to focus on, you need to know what your current situation is.
- How's your credibility with the community? Do they trust you, or does it need some work?
- How aligned are you with the overarching company goals? What do your stakeholders expect of you?
- Who do you need to get to know better internally so that they understand your goals and work in tandem with you to accomplish them?
By understanding your company's current situation you can plan for future ones in an appropriate manner instead of pushing yourself to achieve something that you aren't yet capable of, as David Spinks talks about in this tweet:
“If you try to start things at scale, they won’t work.” -@mwseibel on how to replicate @ycombinator success.
This is a HUGE lesson for every community builder. Don’t replicate how a successful community looks today. Replicate how they started (small and focused).
You also need to take your community's needs into account, both ones that they've shared with you as well as ones you've observed independently.
Brian Barela wrote a fantastic article a few years back that still rings true today. Making Empathy Central to Your Customer Development Strategy may reference a few outdated tools, but the principles referenced are still applicable, and will be for years to come. When we place empathy at the center of our strategy, it's difficult to make a wrong decision.
Martyn Davies does this by creating a content strategy around the posts that he and his team notice on Stack Overflow. By using these questions to directly feed the company's content calendar, they're able to use a data-driven approach to write content that directly meets their community's needs. These observations, while they may seem insignificant in our day-to-day work, can make a meaningful difference in the long-term planning and goals that we set each quarter.
Now that you have a plan... how do you ask for resources to execute said plan? I'm sure I'm not the only one in the room who at some point in their career has said "Not my monkeys... not my problem... let my boss take care of that!" but this is an important part of strategy-building that we all need to understand.
Luckily, Tawny Rose Case has us covered with a comprehensive look at not only how to plan your budget, but how to make sure you're not leaving things out (professional development, anyone?). One particularly important point: Take a look at last year's budget. Was it sufficient? Was it lacking? Did you meet all of your goals? If not, was it because you didn't have the monetary resources you needed? Was it a lack of prioritization? Or was it simply due to unexpected circumstances?
Once you're ready to ask for the budget you need to accomplish your ideal strategy, keep in mind that framing is key. Instead of simply asking for headcount or additional monetary resources, demonstrate the value you can contribute with the additional budget. As I tell my clients, by framing the conversation in a way that represents "Here's what we could accomplish with a team of 5 instead of our current 3," you help your stakeholders focus on the value rather than the cost.
You've Got a Plan... Now How Do You Know if You're Successful?
Creating a good strategy and getting approval for the necessary resources is only half the battle. Once everything's in place for you to be successful in the coming months, it's time to make sure that you can actually show proof of that success.
This problem of staying focused and setting boundaries -- learning to how and when to say no -- is an important one in DevRel and community building. We can be pulled in so many directions that we wind up spending far more time furthering other teams' goals instead of our own. Rich Millington encourages us to stay out of the Community Tactics Quagmire and gives suggestions on how to double down on the tactics that really matter.
Finally... Be Flexible
It may seem counterintuitive for me to end this newsletter encouraging you to be flexible with your strategy. After all, we've spent a lot of time talking through how to make sure that you've set boundaries, figured out what your community needs, and setting missions so that you can make sure everything's pointing back to your true goals.
...just like startups, the moment you have finished to write the plan, it is probably outdated.
...Ideally the plan is not set in stone, but ideally revisited and reiterated on a regular basis (like every 6 months).
This brings us full circle to constantly evaluating, spotting value amidst the chaos, and involving the entire team in receiving feedback that can continue to make your community building efforts beneficial for everyone involved.
I'll leave you with this quote from Serena Snoad:
Buy your expensive engagement product, build your platform, draft your messaging and tell yourself that's community management. It isn't.
You need people who are skilled in managing user content, facilitating discussion, and overseeing the platform to build community.